The Theology of the Eastern Church and Mercersburg

Source: You Shall Be My People. Copyright © 1996 by the Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States.

By Rev. Frank Walker

WHEN a seminary goes bad, the denomination it serves usually follows right behind. This observation, sadly enough, summarizes the history of the Reformed Church in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.

Three professors-Friedrich Rauch, John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff-wielded their influence at the RCUS seminary in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, between 1837 and 1863, promoting a dialectical approach to church history, a view of the sacraments and the church that was more Lutheran than Reformed, and a Hegelian idealism. Because few RCUS pastors were acquainted with the German philosophy and theology from which these ideas arose, the new thought marched successfully forward. There appears to have been no one in the RCUS at the time with the competence to thwart the sheer brilliance of the Mercersburg men. A few pastors tried but the results were less than successful.

This chapter tells the lamentable story of the negative influence of worldly thought on the church of Jesus Christ.


During its formative years, the RCUS benefited greatly from the guidance and assistance of Classis Amsterdam of the Reformed Church in Holland. The Dutch church, for example, sent the Rev. Michael Schlatter with a commission to organize the German Reformed churches of the colonies into a coetus (similar to a Classis but without self-determination) within six months. After he did so, Classis {30}

Amsterdam continued to advise the coetus and review its minutes. Lacking authority to ordain ministers, the coetus was completely dependent on Holland to approve all ordinations of ministers.

This arrangement had one obvious drawback: due to the distance between the Netherlands and the American colonies, the Dutch brethren found it impossible to provide an adequate supply of pastors for the struggling immigrant church. Thus, in 1793 (the year the German Reformed Church reorganized as an independent Synod) congregations outnumbered pastors by almost four to one. Preachers were so hard to come by that many churches had become accustomed to hearing a trained preacher as infrequently as once a month (and often less).

Following its separation from the church in Holland, the RCUS began educating its own ministers under the tutelage of especially skilled pastors. While this method of ‘parsonage training’ seemed to offer adequate instruction, it fell far short of increasing the number of qualified ministers. Solving the problem of the four to one ratio proved harder than was first imagined.

The Synod of 1820, meeting at Hagerstown, Maryland, sought again to remedy this undesirable situation by taking the first steps toward establishing a theological seminary. It chose Dr. Philip Milledoler of New York to be its first Professor of Theology, offering him a starting salary of two thousand dollars per year. Milledoler, however, held this call for nearly two years before he finally declined it, accepting instead the presidency of Rutgers College in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In an effort to encourage support for a seminary, the 1820 Synod also adopted the following resolution prohibiting the parsonage training of students for the ministry:

Resolved, That no minister shall hereafter have the privilege of receiving a young man in order to instruct him in theology, but may only direct him in his preliminary studies.

Apparently, this resolution was directed specifically against Dr. F. L. Herman, who was the only minister at the time training several young men for the pastorate. This action of Synod outraged Herman, who immediately set himself against the proposed seminary. The ensuing controversy, the failure of Synod to raise adequate funds to establish a theological institution, the unfounded suspicions of the laity and Milledoler’s decline of the call doomed the project almost before it began. Another effort to establish a theological school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, proved equally as disastrous.

Though its first attempts to establish a seminary never bore fruit, the Synod of 1824 received an invitation from Dickinson College-then a Presbyterian institution-to establish a seminary on its campus in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This {31} offer was almost too good to be true. The college agreed to provide classrooms and permitted theological students to attend certain other lectures without charge. Its only stipulation was that the Professor of Theology appointed by the RCUS must also assume the chair of History and German Literature in the college proper. In the minds of most, the benefits of such an arrangement far outweighed any inconvenience the professor might have to endure; therefore, the RCUS accepted the offer without delay. With Dr. Lewis Mayer as its only professor, the theological school began operation on March 11, 1825, with an enrollment of five students.

Four years later, the seminary moved to York, Pennsylvania, and in 1832 it acquired the services of Dr. Friedrich Augustus Rauch, who taught mostly in the classical school. Only thirty-five students completed the seminary’s course of instruction before it relocated again in 1837; this time it moved to Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. Not willing to leave York, Mayer resigned his position. However, at the request of Synod he reconsidered his decision but resigned permanently in 1839. With Rauch’s health declining, the Synod of 1840 extended a call to Dr. John Williamson Nevin, a Presbyterian who was then a professor at the seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, to fill the position of Professor of Systematic Theology. Nevin’s knowledge of the German language and contemporary German theology made him uniquely qualified for the job in the eyes of those who elected him. When Rauch died in 1841, Nevin, assisted only by a teacher of Hebrew, assumed complete control of the seminary.

The Synod was by no means satisfied that this arrangement should continue indefinitely. Hoping to attract a German professor to continue Rauch’s work, the Synod of 1843 elected Dr. F W Krummacher of Elberfeld, Prussia, as his successor and dispatched Drs. T. L. Hoffeditz and B. S. Schneck to present the call to him in person. To their dismay and under pressure from the Prussian government, the German pastor declined the call. J. I. Good surmises that “the later controversy [i.e., the controversy surrounding the Mercersburg professors, specifically the liturgical question] would probably never have occurred” had Krummacher (a strict Calvinist) accepted,[1] but this seems rather unlikely for two reasons: (1) it underestimates Nevin’s ability, and (2) Krummacher lived only two years after rejecting the offer of the Synod. In any case, Hoffeditz and Schneck, not willing to return without a German professor to nominate to the vacancy at Mercersburg, consulted with the leading theologians of Germany (including John Augustus William Neander and the conservative E. W. Hengstenberg), who referred them to Dr. Philip Schaff. Though a rather young man, Schaff had already distinguished himself as an extraordinary lecturer at the University of Berlin. He accepted the invitation to come to America, was ordained to the ministry (April 12, 1844), and, after a six-week trip to England, {32} was installed as Professor of Church History and Biblical Literature on October 25 of the same year.

As one can easily see, the establishment of a theological seminary occupied the attention of Synod for more than two decades. However, the controversy that emanated from Rauch, Nevin and Schaff, its chief professors, would affect the church well into the next century. Their doctrine became known as Mercersburg Theology.


The first of the renowned Mercersburg theologians, Friedrich Rauch, was born in Hesse Darmstadt in 1806. Following his education at the University of Marburg, he began teaching at Giessen before migrating to the United States in 1831 for political reasons. Here he first taught German at Lafayette College, and later took up his work at the classical school and seminary of the RCUS, conveying Hegelian idealism (though apparently without its inherent pantheism) to his students, who received it with enthusiasm. This state of affairs left Mayer extremely distressed.

In 1840, Rauch published his Psychology, or a view of the Human Soul, Including Anthropology, which was intended to introduce the German type of philosophy to his American students. It was also to be the first in a series on conservative Hegelian thought. However, his untimely death at the age of thirty-four left a far more extensive work on ethics unfinished.

Rauch’s short life might seem to betray a lack of influence, but this is far from the case. Nevin, his successor, utilized “psychological theories learned from Rauch in relation to the Eucharistic presence, the nature of the risen Christ, and the conception of the final resurrection state,” using a vocabulary and set of categories unfamiliar to American theology.[2] Professor T. Appel carried Rauch’s influence to Lancaster in 1853. There he used Rauch’s courses in psychology and ethics, adding material gleaned from Daub, Rosenkranz, Steffens and Schubert. Horace Bushnell also claimed to have learned much by reading Rauch’s Psychology.


Born in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, on February 20, 1803, John Williamson Nevin grew up within twenty miles of Mercersburg, the town whose name would become synonymous with his own theology. His education at Union College, from which he graduated in 1821, was financed by his uncle, Captain John {33} Williamson. Several men whose careers later became somewhat noteworthy attended Union at the same time, including George Doane and Alonzo Potter, who became Episcopal bishops; Robert J. Breckinridge, President of Jefferson College, superintendent of public education in Kentucky, and theology professor at Danville; William H. Seward, Governor of New York and Lincoln’s Secretary of State; William Kent, law professor at Harvard; and Laurens P. Hickok, theology professor at Auburn and President of Union. Nevin’s conversion seems to have occurred during the 1819-20 school year when Asahel Nettleton toured the area during the Second Great Awakening.

Two years after his graduation from Union, Nevin entered a course of study at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Charles Hodge had just been promoted to the professorate. Nevin had distinguished himself so well as a student (especially in Hebrew) that, when Hodge went abroad in 1826 for two years of advanced instruction, he invited Nevin, whose studies were nearing completion, to teach his classes in his absence. Not sure of a call to the ministry and lacking an appointment elsewhere, Nevin accepted Hodge’s offer, viewing it as an opportunity to test his gifts.

When Hodge returned in 1828, Nevin left New Jersey to assume a teaching position at Western Theological Seminary, a newly opened Presbyterian school west of the mountains. Since Western Seminary did not need him immediately, Nevin lived at home, preached occasionally in a few local churches, and lent loyal and fierce support to the growing temperance movement. His uncle, Dr. Hugh Williamson, advised him earlier: “Take care, my boy, that you do not learn to smoke, for smoking will lead to drinking and that is the end of all good.”[3] When he finally arrived at the site of the new school in December 1829, to his disappointment he found neither building nor library. Instead, all classes were conducted in the session room of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, where they had begun just two years earlier.

At Western Seminary, Nevin occupied himself, in characteristically “puritan”[4] manner, with the social issues of the day. He continued to preach against alcohol, citing the cholera epidemic of 1832 as an example of “the Scourge of God” for the manufacture, sale and use of demon spirits. His devoted opposition to fancy fairs, theaters, horse-racing and slavery made him well known within the Pittsburgh Synod.

The decade of the 1830s introduced several changes in Nevin’s thinking. {34} He turned more and more from an objective and intellectual comprehension of Christianity to a subjective and experimental apprehension, relying on the wisdom of Puritan mystics of the seventeenth century. Creation, he wrote in The Friend (Jan. 15, 1835), is pervaded by the presence of spiritual realities, “the idea of which must be stirred up in the soul itself before either they or their shadows can be apprehended as they are.” His poems, many of which also appeared in The Friend, reflect a heavy preoccupation with the contrast between this present transitoriness and the eternal verities of the world of truth. Interestingly, Nevin successfully evaded conflating faith with feeling, as the rising Transcendental Movement did.

But perhaps the greatest influence on Nevin at this time, at least according to his own admission, was the German historian Neander, from whom he learned to regard religion as a communion with spiritual realities, something to be experienced and not learned. He was particularly captivated by Neander’s historical perspective, which, as he came to understand more of its implications, began to affect his outlook on every other subject. Through this historical perspective, he began to appreciate the value of opinions other than those of orthodox Christianity, viewing even heresy as necessary for the development of Christian doctrine. Nevin later declared that his soul had been awakened to a new historical consciousness by reading Neander.

When the RCUS called Nevin to teach at Mercersburg in 1840, how much his views had already changed or how much he was aware of whatever changes may have occurred is hard to say. At any rate, the 1840s brought an even more drastic change to his theology than the previous decade; he gradually turned more away from the old Reformed position on predestination, the sacraments and the apostasy of Rome, and more toward a broad eclecticism. Though it would be too much to credit Schaff with this change, there can be no doubt that Schaff confirmed his catholic tendencies. Doubtless, he regarded the call as providential in light of his recent interest in the German language and contemporary German theology. It also offered him a chance to return to his native Cumberland Valley, to live among the Pennsylvania Germans with whom he was already so well acquainted. Neither did he regard transferring from Scottish Presbyterian to German Reformed, from the Westminster standards to the Heidelberg Catechism, as a problem. He believed, instead, that both the Presbyterian and Reformed communions sprang forth from the same mold. He even wrote at the time that the German catechism had, in fact, laid the groundwork for the Westminster Confession. Further, he saw an affiliation with the RCUS seminary as an opportunity to test the depth of learning of his German-educated colleague, Dr. Rauch. With these considerations in mind, Nevin readily accepted the call and moved to Mercersburg.

Although Rauch’s early death prevented him from developing the theological aspects of his psychology, Nevin carried on from Rauch’s beginning. He {35} had already taken an interest in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper while at the seminary in Pittsburgh, concluding that American churches in general, even those of Reformed persuasion, had exchanged Calvin’s high view of the sacrament for the low view of the Puritans, a position which he maintained at Mercersburg in opposition to the prevailing (as he saw it) Zwinglian or “rationalistic” doctrine of the RCUS. Rauch’s work provided him with the necessary psychological categories for a defense of his position. The believer’s union with Christ, he taught, must not be conceived of as a merely moral union but as a transfusion of the soul and body of one into the other. Accordingly, Nevin located the atonement not in the propitiatory death of Christ (as the catechism teaches), but in the incarnation itself, that is, by “an organic union of the Incarnate Word with humanity, as a whole, and this in order to form a basis for the regeneration of the race.”[5] Therefore, believers are not saved by the sufferings and death of Christ but by Christ conveying to them the very substance of his incarnate life. This impartation of Christ’s theanthropic life (Nevin’s definition of justification) finds its consummate expression in the Lord’s Supper.

In his most profound work, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, Nevin developed his doctrine of the Supper as follows:

According to the old Reformed doctrine, the invisible grace of the sacrament includes a real participation in his person. That which is made present to the believer, is the very life of Christ himself in its true power and substance. The doctrine proceeds on the assumption that the Christian salvation stands in an actual union between Christ and his people, mystical but in the highest sense real, in virtue of which they are as closely joined to him, as the limbs are to the head in the natural body. They are in Him, and He is in them, not figuratively but truly; in the way of a growing process that will become complete finally in the resurrection. The power of this fact is mysteriously concentrated in the Holy Supper. Here Christ communicates himself to his Church, not simply a right to the grace that resides in his person, or an interest by outward grant in the benefits of his life and death, but his person itself, as the ground and fountain, from which all these other blessings may be expected to flow . . . . Christ first, and then his benefits. Calvin will hear of no other order but this. The same view runs through all the Calvinistic symbols. Not a title to Christ in his benefits, the efficacy of his atonement, the work of his spirit; but {36} a true property of life itself, out of which only that other title can legitimately spring.[6]

To be sure, Nevin did not teach a corporeal presence of Christ in the sacrament, a position which he emphatically denies in the same book, but he nonetheless exalts the sacraments above other acts of worship, even assigning to them an intrinsic efficacy. Concerning baptism, for example, he says,

If the sacraments are regarded as in themselves outward rites only, that can have no value or force except as the grace they represent is made to be present by the subjective exercises of the worshiper, it is hard to see on what ground infants, who are still without knowledge or faith, should be admitted to any privilege of the sort.[7]

Anything less than this mystical view of the sacraments, he argues, “becomes necessarily an unmeaning contradiction” and is a sure sign of the sectarian spirit of the modern church with its diminished view of the church and its sacraments. The intrinsic value of the Supper, to return to the subject at hand, lies precisely in the believer’s participation in the true humanity of Christ, especially in the life of his glorified state.

For Nevin, the Lord’s Supper was “the very heart of the whole Christian worship,” in which “the entire question of the Church” finds its center and core. He says, “Our view of the Lord’s Supper must ever condition and rule in the end our view of Christ’s person and the conception we form of the Church. It must influence at the same time, very materially, our whole system of theology, as well as all our ideas of ecclesiastical history.”[8] This is about as good a summary of Nevin’s contribution to Mercersburg Theology as one can find.

In this debate, Nevin accused Hodge of holding to a merely memorial view of the Holy Supper. Hodge responded by calling Calvin a “crypto-Lutheran” and charging him with making serious concessions to Lutherans to gain their favor. While it is rather unfortunate that Hodge took this extreme and ill-founded position, the fact that Nevin was able to elicit it from the greatest theological giant of the day shows how truly clever he was.

The Mystical Presence was followed the next year by The History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism, which began as a series of essays published {37} by the author between 1841 and 1842. In the latter book, Nevin portrayed the catechism as the glory of the sixteenth century Reformation. If he had meant by this that the catechism reflects a pure Calvinism coupled with a heartfelt love of the truth, true heirs of the Reformation might readily agree. But for Nevin the catechism is the result of both Lutheran and Reformed influences: its view of the sacraments is Calvinistic, but nearly everything else comes from Philip Melanchthon.[9] Nevin’s explanation of the rite of confirmation is clearly Lutheran:

Confirmation is no sacrament of course; but it is a beautifully significant ordinance, in which the sacrament of baptism may be said to come finally to its natural and necessary completion. Baptism becomes complete only in the personal assumption of its vows on the part of its subject. This calls for some rite; and it is certainly hard to conceive of any more appropriate in itself, or less open to the charge of superstition, than the scriptural ceremony which the Church has in fact employed from the earliest time for this purpose.[10] Accordingly, the “genius” of the catechism, at least in part, is its ability to mediate between the two branches of the Reformation.


When Philip Schaff arrived in the United States in the summer of 1844, it would not be long before he would meet one with whom his own views so thoroughly agreed that together they seemed to share one mind. About this time, he wrote in his diary: “I think I could not have a better colleague than Dr. Nevin. I feared I might not find any sympathy in him for my views of the church; but I discover that he occupies essentially the same ground that I do and confirms me in my position. He is filled with the ideas of German theology.”[11]

Born in the Grisons, a canton in east Switzerland, on January 1, 1819, Schaff would eventually become one of the most influential theologians of the {38} nineteenth century. Unlike Nevin, whose theological journey seems to have lacked an occasion, Schaff’s ideas (except his high-church views, which he garnered from the Saturday evening gatherings of Ludwig von Gerlach) thoroughly reflect his experiences and German education. When he was fifteen, the preacher at Chur recognized his unusual talents and arranged for him to study at the Kornthal academy in WŸrttemberg. Kornthal was, at the time, a pietist colony. During his first year there, Schaff experienced a conversion after the pietistic manner and was confirmed by a local Lutheran pastor. This would forever leave its imprint upon his character and learning. As a result he abandoned the hope of becoming a poet (though he would later prove himself more than adequately gifted in his command of languages) and turned his attention instead to the study of theology.

Shortly thereafter, Schaff entered the gymnasium at Stuttgart. There he mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew in preparation for a university education. After two years of preliminary study, he applied to the University of TŸbingen, the foremost leader in higher criticism and Hegelian philosophy. There he met Ferdinand Christian Baur, who applied the critical methods to the documents of the New Testament to reconstruct the “actual” history of their time, and Isaac Dorner, who helped students learn Hegel and Schleiermacher (as his reputation has it) without losing their Christian faith.

From TŸbingen, Schaff went to Halle and studied under F. A. G. Tholuck. Tholuck identified the controlling factor of current theological thought as Entwicklung (evolution or development). Tholuck seems to have had a particular interest in American students, attracting men of the caliber of Charles Hodge and Henry B. Smith.

Within a few months, Professor E. W. Hengstenberg invited Schaff to Berlin to assume a position tutoring the children of Prussian nobility. He began with the son of Baroness von Kroecher, who allowed him sufficient time to attend the university lectures of Hengstenberg, Neander and Leopold von Ranke.[12] Though he had learned the principle of historical development from Baur at TŸbingen, Neander, whose views were also far from orthodox, seems to have been more influential in the development of his religious thought. In fact, the faculty of the University of Berlin later sent him a testimonial, praising his eight volume History of the Christian Church as “the most notable monument of universal historical learning {39} produced by the school of Neander.”[13] As with Schleiermacher, Neander believed that the heart of true religion consists of the experiences of the church out of which religious thought grows.

After two years of tutoring (the second of which he spent traveling in southern Europe), Schaff, at the age of twenty-three, returned to Berlin and began offering courses as a Privatdocent in the New Testament and the theology of Schleiermacher. Even at this early age, Schaff had earned the heartiest recommendation of the leading thinkers of mid-nineteenth century Germany, both conservative and otherwise: F. W. Krummacher, Tholuck, Hengstenberg, Neander and Dorner. These were the men who directed the representatives of the RCUS to Schaff in 1843 and counseled him to accept the post at Mercersburg.

Schaff’s arrival in the United States was greeted with both approbation and disappointment. Some lauded his exceptional learning and abilities, especially for one so young (only twenty-five at the time); others heard about his ordination sermon, in which he criticized German Americans as being in danger of succumbing to various sectarian interests, and deplored his coming.

If Nevin laid down the first principle of Mercersburg Theology (viz., the centrality of the person of Christ in the life of the church), Schaff provided the second (viz., the principle of historical development); and he wasted no time doing so. At the opening of the Synod in 1844, Dr. Joseph Berg, pastor of the First Reformed Church of Philadelphia and the retiring President of Synod, preached on the historical background of the Reformation, making the rather preposterous claim that the apostolic church had been preserved unchanged throughout the entire Middle Ages by the Waldenses. Schaff’s inaugural address, Das Prinzip des Protestantismus (translated into English the following year and published with a lengthy forward by Nevin) was aimed directly at Berg, just as Berg’s sermon seems to have been aimed at him. In this address, Schaff countered Berg with another absurdity: that the Reformation was simply the natural development of the best in the medieval Catholic tradition. The printed version of this address contained an appendix of 112 theses; according to Thesis 31, ” . . . the Reformation is the greatest act of the Catholic Church itself, the full ripe fruit of all its better tendencies, particularly of the deep spiritual law conflicts of the Middle Period, which were as a schoolmaster toward the Protestant doctrine of justification.” Schaff’s friend Gerlach, who openly described his own position as evangelische KatholizitŠt, used to speak of the Reformation as the finest flower of the Middle Ages and longed for an eventual reunion of the two parties. With somewhat less enthusiasm for Catholicism, Schaff adopted his friend’s view. {40}

Almost as soon as The Principle of Protestantism appeared in print, the Mercersburg professors found themselves on trial for heresy. However, this had little effect on their productivity. Schaff began his first full year of teaching with a lecture to his church history class on historical method. Again, this lecture was translated by Nevin and published the following June (1846) as What is Church History? A Vindication of the Idea of Historical Development. Later, Schaff reproduced this and expanded it in the first volume of his church history series. Its purpose, of course, was to clarify, explain, and defend his position.

Relying on Hegel’s dialectic, Schaff compared church history to the growth of a plant, which, in the course of its life, goes through various stages of development, each negating and yet fulfilling that which came before it. Likewise, the epochs of church history build on those that preceded them, adding their own contributions and offering solutions to previously unanswered problems. Church history, he argued, shows the unmistakable imprint of divine wisdom in that God uses each period of the church’s development to bring to light some hitherto undiscovered truth. It is the great or distinctive ideas of each age that make it different from all others. The doctrines of justification by faith alone (the material principle) and sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”: the formal principle) he regarded as the great ideas of the Protestant Reformation. Actually, Schaff reductively considered these doctrines as one, since the Word cannot be correctly understood apart from faith. The Word he saw as the form, and faith its content; Scripture is spirit, and the believer’s appropriation of it is life. He maintained that, although Christianity is theoretically complete in Christ, its inner life was only gradually appropriated and implemented by the church. The Reformation was only one step in the process. Schaff’s “Protestant Principle” was the principle of the development of the church, not of this or that doctrine (or even the collection of doctrines) taught by the Reformers.

On the other hand, Schaff also found certain “diseases” dominating the history of Protestant churches. Lutherans tended toward theological rationalism, which made its first appearance more than a century after the Reformation began. It began, ironically, as an anti-intellectual reaction of pietism to scholastic orthodoxy; then moving into Biblical criticism and Hegelian pantheism; and ending with Feuerbach redefining religion as the deification of human experience. The disease of the Reformed tradition is sectarianism (or “sectarism,” according to Nevin’s translation), by which Schaff meant the practical and organizational fragmentation of the church. The chief culprit here was seventeenth century Puritanism. None of the Reformers, he argued, advocated unbridled liberty for individuals, but rather a liberty that subscribed to the authority of divine truth. Puritanism, however, prostituted the Reformation principle by emphasizing the conversion experience of individuals; it was, therefore, spiritualistic (rejecting forms {41} of worship), unhistorical (disdaining the elements of Catholicism preserved in the Reformation tradition) and unchurchly (neglecting the broader picture of the church as the Body of Christ). Furthermore Puritanism, because of its influence on American religious thought, had communicated these traits to American religion in general. Now, it might seem that rationalism and sectarianism have little in common, but Schaff saw them as the two sides of a single coin: rationalism being nothing more than theoretical sectarianism, and sectarianism being practical rationalism. His third disease of Protestantism was political revolution. Schaff regarded the Reformation’s contribution to culture in a primarily negative sense. By this, he meant that the Reformers, instead of advocating social change, merely stood by as the forces already present worked for improvement. Their heirs, however, used revolution to advance the authority of Christ in the political realm.

Schaff further contended that even the diseases of Protestantism had some limited justification. Rationalism, for example, purged the church of many of its erroneous and exaggerated opinions. Sectarianism also, by protesting against real faults of the orthodox church, contributed to its proper development. Even Puritanism offered a heightened sense of a Biblical moral responsibility and self discipline-characteristics too often lacking among Protestants in general.

To the dismay of many, Schaff’s heresy trial ended with his exoneration. The reason, according to Sydney E. Ahlstrom, was that “none of his assailants knew what the German Reformed standards were.”[14] Not too long afterward, Dr. Berg, author of the charges against Schaff, resigned his Philadelphia charge and transferred to the Dutch Reformed Church. However, the trial so shook the denomination that Nevin eventually resigned from the seminary and concentrated more on the college. Schaff also resigned in 1863, taking a position at Union Seminary in New York. As early as 1847, the Dutch Reformed Church voted to end its relationship with the RCUS; the theology of the Mercersburg professors was, no doubt, a factor in its decision.


If worship articulates the theology of a church, the most practical articulation of Mercersburg Theology came with the liturgical controversy that began in 1847 when the East Pennsylvania Classis sought to have either the Palatinate liturgy reprinted or another based on the catechism approved. The resulting controversy shook the RCUS all the way down to its foundation, almost tearing it apart.

However, the problem was far more general than this suggests. Two factors {42} forced the RCUS to consider the liturgical question before Nevin and Schaff came along. We see this in the fact that the Synod of 1820 appointed a committee of five leading ministers to consider the possibility of translating and printing the old German liturgy. In 1821 this committee reported that nothing had been done. Its report the next year recommended only the printing of the Palatinate order with some slight modifications, but little was actually done at the time. The matter surfaced again in 1834. Seven years later, the Mayer liturgy was approved but only by four Classes. If anything, this history shows (contrary to the claims of Mercersburg adherents) that there was very little enthusiasm for ritual in the church.

The first factor that drew the attention of the RCUS to a consideration of liturgy was the anglicization of the church; that is, with English replacing German as the language of the people (especially in the east), even the Palatinate model had become unserviceable. Of course, the Palatinate liturgy, which was never used in the RCUS in any substantial way, was also becoming harder and harder to obtain.

Second, the influence of Puritanism had cast disdain on set forms of worship, contrary to the semi-liturgical worship in the early Reformed churches. Precomposed prayers, it was said, hampered the work of the Spirit in converting the unconverted. Free prayer (with its omissions, disorderliness and solecisms) was becoming the American standard. However, this had the lamentable effect also of limiting congregational participation to the singing of an occasional hymn. By contrast, the Palatinate liturgy included set prayers for the regular Lord’s Day service and special prayers for Christmas, New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. It also included a schedule of Bible readings for the entire year. Following the pattern established by John à Lasco , the communion was celebrated monthly with appropriate preparation observed beforehand. Its order of service for the Lord’s Day (which focused on the sermon) was more rigid than one might suppose. The usual service began with a blessing and psalm, followed by a confession of sin, a prayer for the saving apprehension of the Word and the Lord’s Prayer (in unison here and throughout). A Scripture reading and the sermon came next, and the service concluded with another confession of sin (in unison), a declaration of forgiveness to the penitent and of condemnation to the impenitent. Then followed the Lord’s Prayer (the second time), a series of prayers with various themes, the Lord’s prayer (or a rather lengthy paraphrase of the same), a psalm and the Aaronic blessing.[15] Though services were formal, there was not the slightest hint of a Mercersburg style altar worship; the German order was decidedly a pulpit-liturgy (i.e., designed for use by the pastor, not the people). It is also highly doubtful that many early fathers of the RCUS even knew what was in the Palatinate model {43} although Boehm encouraged its use as early as 1748.[16] Though the RCUS looked to the Palatinate liturgy as a “model,” none of its early liturgies (the Germantown liturgy of 1798, the Weisz liturgy of 1828, and the “Mayer liturgy” of 1841) contained special forms for the Lord’s Day service. Though the RCUS had never been strictly liturgical, the Palatinate liturgy precipitated many of the questions that reappeared in connection with the Mercersburg movement. This forced the RCUS to decide what kind of worship it would endorse. How to decide was not so easy.

The Synod of 1848 erected a committee, chaired by Dr. J. H. A. Bomberger, to study the issue and offer recommendations, but this committee failed to act. When Synod met the following year, various opinions were expressed; some wanted set forms only for the sacraments and other special services, while others preferred forms for the regular services as well. Bomberger successfully argued for the latter, asserting that a regular liturgy offers the best opportunity for corporate worship. The Synod then formed a second committee, larger than the first, giving it the responsibility to begin developing such a liturgy. Nevin, who had already begun referring to the table as an “altar” and had expressed his preference for vestments and other liturgical devices, was chosen to head this committee.

However, Nevin knew that his views on worship were vastly different from those of most RCUS ministers at the time. He argued, for example, that a central pulpit must give way to a pronounced altar; but few others looked for anything more than forms for special occasions, allowing considerable room for extemporaneous prayer. Nevin even despaired of affecting the church in any significant way. His own committee recommended nothing more than a translation of the Palatinate liturgy. The battle raged both in print and in personal correspondence.

Nevin resigned from the chairmanship of this committee in 1851 (the same year he tendered his resignation from the seminary) and was replaced by Schaff. Like his predecessor, Schaff had also voiced his preference for an altar worship, complete with gowns and candles, but was far more optimistic about success. Chaired by Schaff, the committee proposed four forms for the regular Sunday service, two for baptism and a form for the solemnization of marriage. Not surprisingly, the committee made it clear that it had adapted the forms of the Greek and Latin churches of the third and fourth centuries. The Reformation’s contribution was, more or less, limited to its hymnology, since (as Schaff saw it) the liturgical developments of the sixteenth century embraced little more than translations and purifications of those that preceded them. To promote congregational participation, the committee further proposed the publication of a book, similar to the Anglican {44} Book of Common Prayer, to be used by the people. Abandoning the old Reformed practice of preaching consecutively through various books of the Bible, this proposed prayer book would include a pericope system of Scripture readings and thematic collects based on the ecclesiastical calendar.

Schaff plan received the approbation of the 1852 Synod. It seems likely, however, that most RCUS ministers did not fully grasp the intent of the committee’s proposals. Even Dr. Henry Harbaugh, the committee’s secretary and himself a proponent of Mercersburg altar worship, labored under the assumption that the committee would produce a liturgy basically of the Reformed model.

The Synod of 1857 finally approved the completed liturgy for provisional use. Some churches received it almost without noticing a change. In others it caused considerable strife and division. Though it sold three printings in its first year, James Hastings Nichols asserts that it was probably not used regularly by more than a dozen congregations.[17]

It soon became evident that this provisional liturgy had not provided the church with a functional tool. In 1863, the General Synod gave permission to the Synod of Ohio to prepare another liturgy and encouraged the Eastern Synod to continue revising the 1857 provisional liturgy. Three years later, the revised Order of Worship was completed. A Western Liturgy appeared the next year. Opponents of the revised Order, at a meeting held September 24, 1867, protested its use in the church, and founded Ursinus College in an attempt to preserve the old Reformed theology and worship. This new college received the formal recognition of the Synod in 1872.

The battle over a liturgy continued for several years until the General Synod of 1878 appointed a Peace Commission to find an amicable solution. This committee was reappointed in 1881 and submitted a revised (and compromised) Directory of Worship in 1884, which it then referred to the Classes for their adoption. With the consent of the Classes, the General Synod of 1887 ratified the new Directory.


There can be no doubt that the RCUS lost more than it gained as a result of establishing a seminary at Mercersburg. Yes, some members, and even entire congregations, sought fellowship from other sources. A few of its more orthodox ministers, including Berg (who transferred to the Dutch Reformed Church), went elsewhere. But members, congregations and even ministers can be replaced. We see {45} that this is so when we consider that the number of RCUS ministers increased fifty times in the nineteenth century, while the number of members grew by fifteen times. Yet, at the same time the RCUS gave up something of far greater historical importance-much of its Reformed heritage.

Instead of allowing the doctrines of the Reformation to control policy, a practical matter (the need for more ministers) became the dominant consideration. Then came the misguided notion that German professors, or at least professors who were well acquainted with German thought and life, would serve the church best. However, these German professors had adopted the new German philosophy, which they soon introduced to their students at Mercersburg. By redefining the nature of Reformed theology and church history, Mercersburg Theology gradually replaced the theology of the Reformation. And since worship is the articulation of theology, the Mercersburg movement required a new liturgy. This, in turn, started the liturgical controversies of the mid-1800s.

Did the RCUS get what it wanted? If we define its wants in terms of its priorities as they were actually settled upon, it would be impossible to come to any other conclusion. But priorities are not always so neatly arranged; therefore, it seems best not to malign the motives of our forefathers, but to learn from their mistakes. The compromised theology and liturgy that came because of their decisions paved the way for the infamous and disastrous 1934 merger of our church with the Evangelical Synod of North America.

To avoid leaving such a legacy to our children, we must retain sound doctrine as our highest priority. Jesus said, If you have my doctrine, you have life. The Bible, which we accept as the Word of God, must be set before our people first. All other considerations must be secondary to it.

[1] J.I Good, History of the Reformed Church in the U. S. in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Board of the Reformed Church in America, 1911), p. 205.

[2] James Hastings Nichols, Romanticism in American Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 104.

[3] Good, op. cit., p. 109.

[4] Early in his career, Nevin held the Puritans in very high regard, but later he looked on them with scorn and contempt. Both his earlier and later views were extreme.

[5] B. S. Schneck, Mercersburg Theology Inconsistent with Protestant and Reformed Doctrine (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1874), p. 14.

[6] John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1846), p. 122.

[7] Nevin, Mystical Presence, p. 149.

[8] Nevin, Mystical Presence, p. 3.

[9] Philip Melanchthon’s views underwent some change between the early years of the Reformation and his death. His early views suggest a strong disposition to predestination and supralapsarianism, while his later writings lean more toward synergism. This was due in part to a perceived overemphasis by the Swiss Reformers on the sovereignty of God. Apparently, in making the claim that the catechism reflects Melanchthon’s influence, Nevin, who had also abandoned a strict Calvinistic understanding of predestination, refers to Melanchthon’s later views. In any case, we must regard Nevin’s contention as spurious, unfounded, and contrary to the historical purpose of the catechism.

[10] John Williamson Nevin, The History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism (Chambersburg, PA: Publication Office of the German Reformed Church, 1847), p. 160.

[11] D. S. Schaff, The Life of Philip Schaff (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897), 103, quoted in Nichols, p. 64.

[12] For a fascinating survey of the leading schools and professors of nineteenth century Germany by one who had firsthand knowledge, see Philip Schaff, Germany, its Universities, Theology, and Religion; with Sketches of Neander, Tholuck, Olshausen, Hengstenberg, Twesten, Nitzsch, Muller, Ullmann, Rothe, Dorner, Lange, Ebrard, Wichern, and Other Distinguished German Divines of the Age (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1857).

[13] D. S. Schaff, 467, quoted in Nichols, p. 69.

[14] Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, vol. 2 (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1975), p. 58.

[15] Jack Martin Maxwell, Worship and Reformed Theology: The Liturgical Lessons of Mercersburg (Pittsburgh: The Pickwick Papers, 1976), pp. 90-91.

[16] By the mid-nineteenth century, the Palatinate liturgy had become so rare that Nevin admitted in a footnote in his book on the catechism that he had only once seen a copy of it. See Nevin, Heidelberg Catechism, p. 153.

[17] Nichols, Mercersburg Theology, p. 305.

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